Sense and Nonsense: The Complexity of Catholicism

One of the arguments for Islam is that it’s a relatively simple religion. Its essential system is very brief; it can be stated in five principles with few basic requirements. Catholicism is complicated. As Chesterton said, it is complex because the reality it deals with is complex. Catholicism understands itself to be directly derived—if I can put it that way—from the Old Testament. A Jew cannot read the Hebrew Bible as a Catholic reads it. Indeed, Jews must specifically maintain that it does not read as the Catholic reads it. A Catholic priest reads more than 15 psalms a day in his Office. Every one of them is introduced in a way pointing to the Catholic understanding of the meaning of Israel.

Unlike other monotheistic religions, Catholicism understands that God has an inner life, an otherness in the divinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. Three Persons, one God. Is this not artificial complexity? Granted that we have had a couple thousand years to make sense of this teaching—and we are supposed to make sense of it, since Catholicism is also a religion of the intellect—the understanding of this inner life of God needs to be accurate. Small errors have big consequences. The world laughs at wars of religion. This would be funnier if there were no wars of irreligion. But the suggestion that what we believe about God makes no difference is an attack on God Himself. We are not free not to have the right idea about God, even if we should have the right idea freely.

Not only does Catholicism have the notion of Trinity, but it holds that the second Person of the Trinity—the Word—was made flesh. God comes into history. He lives in a certain place and time. So if the Trinity is complicated, we have seen nothing till we cope with this Word made flesh and dwelling among us.

What happened while this Word was on earth? Well, He didn’t do much for the first 30 years. Catholics call this the “hidden life,” mainly because they know so little about it. He seems to have collected a band about Him. Catholics claim testimony that He performed miracles, a feat that sparked a long discussion with what has later come to be known as science. What kind of a world is it in which a miracle can happen? What kind in which it cannot?


This Jesus, as the Word is called, crossed the local customs and antagonized a few local leaders, especially when He claimed to know the Father and spoke in His name. It appeared as blasphemy to the locals and was blasphemy if He was not who He said He was. The Romans got a hold of Him and crucified Him. Before this, however, He claimed to establish a Church, made a follower the head, and called him Peter.

Then there’s this thing called the Mass. Just before He was crucified, this Word had a supper at which He instituted a rite that anticipated His crucifixion. He told His apostles to repeat this sacrifice in His memory, which they’ve been doing ever since.

During the few years that He taught, this Christ explained a few things about how these folks were to live. He seems to have freed His followers from the Jewish ritual as such. The believers were to know the truth that would make them free. The funny thing about this Christ was that He didn’t seem to want to get into politics—definitely an unmodern trait. He did acknowledge that this Pilate, the Roman governor who had Him executed, had authority from God. No wonder Pilate shook his head at all this. “What is truth?” he’s reported to have asked.

Much to the surprise of Pilate and the local gentry, this Christ seems to have been resurrected after He was crucified. If anything could have complicated the situation more than the Crucifixion, the Resurrection was it. Finally, Christ also gave out a few warnings about the End Times and about the importance of living properly.

In an “introductory” book, St. Thomas Aquinas took about 4,000 pages to sort out the implications of all this. So is this a bad thing, this “complexity”? I think it’s rather a glory. It’s not that any of us, even Aquinas, will get everything right all the time. But it is a comfort to know that, in revealing something of Himself to us, the Divinity wanted us to get it right about what it was all about. And He may have wanted to provoke the philosophers, who thought they had it right on their own hook. As I say, it’s complex.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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